The kitchen is crowded as students rush to make salads, fresh mozzarella, and Italian potato dumplings for their daily family meal.
Caridad Community Kitchen in Tucson is not the average culinary training program. The students have little to no income and are interested in a fresh start, said Jon Wirtis, executive chef and instructor.
“We do have people that come out of the prison system and incarceration and we don’t hold anything back and neither should they,” Wirtis said. “We want to give them a second chance. It’s very much OK, we just want to make sure they are honest with us.”
The program, like others in the state, welcomes students who struggle with homelessness or pasts involving jail, alcoholism or drug abuse. They are welcomed as long as they have been drug-free for six months and can pass drug tests, Wirtis said.
“The beauty about our industry is that they are very accepting of people,” Wirtis said. “Not all, the casinos definitely have guidelines and other restaurants, but a lot of them are very open. They just want hard-working individuals.”
About 50 to 60 people are interviewed and 14 are accepted for each 10-week class, Wirtis said.
Students learn safety and sanitation through the ServSafe program, through the National Restaurant Association, Wirtis said.
“I teach them that food has to be safe first, it has to taste good second, and it has to look good third,” Wirtis said. “Without the first one, the second two don’t really matter.”
Students also learn how to slice, dice, sauté, braise, broil, roast, pan fry and deep fry as well as make different sauces and dressings, Wirtis said.
The students, attending class 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, cook about 18,000 meals a month for people and families in need at Boys & Girls clubs, churches and shelters in Tucson, according to Wirtis.
For the first two hours of each day, students learn about sanitation and culinary skills as well as job and life skills, such as conflict resolution, resume building and mock interviews.
Then they break into teams to prepare the family meal for the day, where they all sit down together for lunch, Wirtis said.
The training program requires the students make a $25 investment at the start of the program, and upon graduation, they get $50 back. They also give them work shoes and donors have donated French knives to the past few graduating classes.
Each student costs about $4,000 to go through the program, Wirtis said. The class is part of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, with funding from government grants and the community.
The kitchen also earns revenues by catering casual comfort food to businesses and parties. Prices range from $3-$4 for appetizers, $6 for lunches, and $12-$15 for dinners, Wirtis said.
Over the past three years since the Community Food Bank took the “Caridad de Porres” program over from Holy Family Church, 92 cooks have graduated from the program and 80 percent of those graduate receive jobs, most in the culinary field, according to Wirtis.
“After our 14th class, we’ve built a good reputation out in the community to where the chefs and the kitchen managers are calling us,” Wirtis said. “It’s been great.”
Past graduates are working at a variety of restaurants, including the JW Marriott Tucson Starr Pass, Canyon Ranch, Skyline Country Club, Tucson Unified School District, Wildflower, Proper, Sauce, The Hub.
“So many of our students have found their voice, and they’ve changed; and to see people change their lives in 10 weeks,” Wirtis said. “They’re able to make better lives for them and their families, and that’s why I do it.”
Similarly, at UMOM New Day Centers in Phoenix, homeless individuals can receive culinary and barista training, according to Jon Woodgate, director of training at UMOM.
“Our training programs provide a solid foundation of skill sets for their food service career development,” Woodgate said. “We teach values like integrity, dedication, commitment, honesty and loyalty. We feel these values will not only make them great employees, but better individuals as well.”
The culinary training program is a nine-week program focusing on commercial cooking kitchen techniques. The barista training program lasts six weeks and focuses on skills related to coffee shops and cafes, Woodgate said.
UMOM has partnered with Starbucks so students can practice on the equipment. Barista students receive experience by working at UMOM’s Helpings Café, Catering and Market, Woodgate said.
“Over half the people that come through our training find employment,” Woodgate said. “Every graduate that completes our program and wants a job finds a job.”
Since 2013, more than 150 people have gone through the training programs. Funding for the program comes from corporations, foundations and individuals as well as profits from the market, Woodgate said.
The budget for this year is over $200,000, which includes equipment, uniforms, training materials, staff, product, and student expenses, Woodgate said.
Upon completion of the training program, graduates receive their food handler card, a training resume and a certificate of completion, Woodgate said.
“To witness the change from when they start, to when they complete and graduate is the most satisfying experience that I could imagine,” Woodgate said. “What they are able to overcome and accomplish to be successful is amazing.”
Beth Goldenbogen, a current student in the culinary program at Caridad Community Kitchen, had spent six years in prison and struggled to find employment. After trying to find culinary schools that were less expensive, she found Caridad and thought it was “too good to be true.”
“It’s giving me a future for myself, and at the same time, I’m giving back to the community,” Goldenbogen said.
Goldenbogen graduated May 1 and found employment as the head chef at the Girl Scout Camp Whispering Pines during the summer. After the summer, she plans to return to Caridad to work part-time for the catering program.
“I’m very excited for graduation although it’s bittersweet because I don’t want to leave,” Goldenbogen said.
“I’m very excited about the future that I might have, because first coming out of prison and getting all the ‘no’s’ and all the negativity, to have this hope now, is just amazing.” Goldenbogen said. “I would recommend this program to anybody who wants to change their life.”
Holly Regan is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Click here for high-resolution photos.